BU professor works on NASA Mars project

A Boston University professor is working on the NASA project that could possibly unlock the secrets of Mars’ paper-thin atmosphere.

BU astronomy professor John Clarke’s work and research will be tested against the elements of outer space when the National Aeronautic and Space Administration launches the MAVEN mission, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN — in 2013, he said.

“MAVEN is the first Mars mission in a long series of missions to explore the atmosphere of the planet with no land rovers,” Clarke said.

Clarke volunteered for the mission four years ago when researchers in Colorado began developing it, Clarke said.

Clarke’s primary focus for MAVEN will be developing and testing the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph, an instrument which detects UV light and will help the team look down into Mars’ atmosphere from orbit, Clarke said.

The IUVS, which will mainly be built in Colorado, will be designed and tested in the College of Arts and Sciences’ vacuum chamber.

The mission will reach Mars’ orbit in 2014, according the NASA website. Clarke said he will continue to teach at BU. He had worked for NASA about 20 years ago, around the time NASA developed the Hubble space telescope.

Clarke is excited about the current NASA mission and the prospect of getting closer to solving what is known as the “Goldilocks” problem, Clarke said.

“Venus is too hot to support life. Mars is too cold. Earth is just right,” Clarke said. “If they started out at the same temperature, which we think they did, how did that change?”

The mission will also try to determine what happened to the water on Mars, Clarke said.

“One of two things could have happened,” Clarke said. “It could be locked in the crusto-magnetic fields, or, when it was young, Mars’ gravity was much weaker than Earth’s and the water escaped into space.”

Clarke has been relatively quiet about his MAVEN mission in his classes, CAS sophomore Jeffrey Russo said.

“I don’t know all that much about the mission, but I know they’ve been collecting data and experimenting,” Russo, one of Clarke’s students, said. “It’s cool that a BU professor is involved.”

BU Center for Space Physics Director Supriya Chakrabarti said Clarke plans to involve his students with testing and calibrating instruments and collecting and analyzing data once MAVEN reaches Mars.

“It’s a great opportunity for us because MAVEN mission is the next major mission to Mars, and it’s going to try to answer some very fundamental questions about what happened to the Martian atmosphere,” he said.

Clarke’s research on the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn at BU will help with his understanding of the Martian atmosphere, Chakrabarti said.

“Scientific research progresses like almost anything else,” he said. “In high school, you learn algebra and calculus, and then, you get to college and apply them in ways you’ve never seen before. With Professor Clarke, he has studied other planets and is using what he learned in the case of the MAVEN mission.”

NASA was unavailable for comment at press time.

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